Monday, March 11, 2013

Why Do We Do "Pointless" Things? (Hint: They're Not)

The other day, an English teacher at my school emailed the faculty with the link to this piece in the New York Times about literacy (or lack thereof) in Mexico. It makes me want to yell at someone, hit someone, and just scream and cry at the same time.

Here's part of what set me to tearing my hair out:

A few years back, I spoke with the education secretary of my home state, Nuevo León, about reading in schools. He looked at me, not understanding what I wanted. “In school, children are taught to read,” he said. “Yes,” I replied, “but they don’t read.” I explained the difference between knowing how to read and actually reading, between deciphering street signs and accessing the literary canon. He wondered what the point of the students’ reading “Don Quixote” was. He said we needed to teach them to read the newspaper.

Because if they read thought-provoking novels, they won't be able to read the newspaper? We should limit them to only achieving the baseline?


And then this:

When my daughter was 15, her literature teacher banished all fiction from her classroom. “We’re going to read history and biology textbooks,” she said, “because that way you’ll read and learn at the same time.”

I'm all for using literacy in the content areas, but throwing out fiction in literature class in favor of textbooks?

There's learning to read, which is generally what happens in elementary school. Then kids transition to reading to learn, which is what we're doing when we read textbooks or essays. We take the knowledge someone else has and absorb it by reading.

Then there's what I'd call reading to create knowledge. I'd say that's what happens when we read fiction. We can make our own discoveries about human nature, about ourselves, our own understandings about the world. The job of a novelist—as I see it—is not to teach but to explore. The reader explores with us, yet may not discover the same things or arrive at the same destination. That's why it's amazing.

This idea that we should only learn things that we'll definitely, absolutely use in a concrete, practical way mystifies me. As I mentioned a month ago, it's certainly turned up in my classroom. While I don't hear students ask what the point of reading novels is (maybe the English teachers get that from the kids who don't like reading—I have to threaten to take books away from kids who'd rather read than do math), I get it about almost everything else we want them to learn.

My school just sent out a survey last week, and one of the items was to vote on whether we want to institute a mandatory free-reading time next year. Twenty minutes a day, three days a week. No matter the class, everyone will spend those twenty minutes reading, including the teachers, administrators, everyone.

I haven't had a chance to ask the other math teachers what they think of it. Or the science, art, PE, music, history, and tech teachers.

My vote: Absolutely, yes, without question.

Because the only pointless thing is limiting ourselves to the concrete little nothings. What kind of life is that?


SC Author said...

I LOVE THIS. It is so true. I shudder to think of a world where we only learn the bare minimum. What makes us human? Not the ability to crunch numbers - robots can do that. But the ability to create? To imagine? That's what we should foster. That's what's missing in the math-and-science push of today's education system (I love math and science, by the way).

whimsicalwerecat said...

Hear, hear! I completely agree with you R.C!

Debra McKellan said...

I'm still baffled by a literature teacher banning literature. Why did she still have a job?

I shout this every time I see something like this, but FAHRENHEIT 451!!! It's happening.